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Behre: The arrival of the machine that transformed Charleston and the South

It’s looking like we’re in for a long, hot summer, but we should pause to appreciate that it still promises to be nowhere near as hot as it used to be.

In fact, the rapid growth of Charleston can be chalked up to many things, including a friendly business climate, smart infrastructure moves, and leadership that preserved the area’s history and architectural grandeur while also ushering in a more equitable future.

But the growth also stems from something much more mundane: air conditioning.

Invented in 1902 in Brooklyn (of all places), modern air conditioning — like many new things in that era — took its time making its way to Charleston.

In this newspaper’s forerunner, The News and Courier, the term “air conditioning” first appeared in a May 18, 1906, story on the American Cotton Manufacturers Association. But the first real hint of what was to come appeared in 1926 under the headline, “Predicts Cooling Plants for Homes.” The story, which began “Shut the windows. Turn on the electricity and keep cool,” quoted Edwin Miller, head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“The increasing demands upon human energy in this age of swift progress and keen competition call for new measures for physical comfort and protections,” he said. “Extreme summer heat slows human activity and lowers efficiency in all branches of endeavor, whether it be in factory, office building or home.”

In 1929, Congress tackled its hot air problem by installing air conditioning in the U.S. House chamber, but the first mention of its arrival in Charleston came three years later, in 1932, in a story about the American Cigar company’s planned growth at its Cigar Factory at East Bay and Columbus streets.

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Willis Carrier, who invented the air conditioner in 1902, had formed a company by 1933 that built and sold units. Those soon made their way here, and that same year, a front-page story in The News and Courier heralded the first AC unit that average folks could enjoy, newly installed in the Francis Marion Hotel’s coffee shop.

That story helpfully explained how it worked: “The equipment functions to cleanse, wash and cool the air which is released in a gentle constant flow throughout the coffee shop. It also removes excess humidity. The two large and three small units which have been installed conditions more than 6,000 cubic feet of air per minute and the cooling process is the equivalent to that obtained by the use of ten tons of melting ice.”

It also bragged about the use of Freon, which it noted was “the latest scientifically approved refrigerant, a non toxic, non explosive compound. It has been given official approval for use in government hospitals and Navy submarines.”

Just five days later, on June 16, R.B. Aldrich So. Ca. Radio Shop of 397 King St. advertised Frigidaire refrigerators, as well as “Air conditioning for all purposes.” In 1934, the Cigar Factory was air conditioned.

Of course, coverage of air conditioning’s arrival wasn’t all breathless and upbeat. A 1935 editorial noted: “The Republicans were the party of high living by government and sumptuous expenditures, but the Democrats are surpassing them in the conversion of Washington into a magnificent capital with air conditioned public buildings.”

Many in Charleston only slowly adopted it. Some remember first encountering air conditioning around 1940, inside Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store. And many still slept on their screened piazzas in the summer through the 1950s and ’60s.

Much has been written about how air conditioning helped transform the South, from population surges to better health to a different kind of architecture to new sleeping habits to a summer tourism season to less cultural isolation to less poverty to a faster pace of life. It took many decades, but cooler heads prevailed.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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